NBC

Capitals vs. Lightning: PHT’s 2018 Eastern Conference Final preview

3 Comments

How much of an underdog can you be when you won your division, and done so by a significant margin?

In the case of the Washington Capitals, it seems like you could be a genuine underdog. Really, they sure felt like one against the Pittsburgh Penguins, too, despite being a higher seed with home-ice advantage.

It was probably a refreshing change of pace for the Capitals to be less of a juggernaut, and that will certainly carry over against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

By going 54-23-5 with 113 standings points, the Lightning finished with the best record in the East, generating eight more than the Capitals. After missing the playoffs thanks to a bumpy, injury-ravaged 2016-17 season, the Lightning justified all of the optimism surrounding this roster … and more.

Neither the Capitals (two six-game series) nor the Lightning (two five-game series) have faced elimination so far during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. To advance to the championship round, it’s quite likely that they’ll face their greatest tests yet.

SCHEDULE

OFFENSE

Capitals: Washington has scored 43 goals so far in 12 postseason games, a slightly higher per-game rate (3.58) than Tampa Bay (3.50). They’re generating a healthy 32.8 shots on goal per contest. Via Natural Stat Trick, Washington’s generated a robust 110 high-danger chances at even-strength so far during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Through 12 games, the Capitals’ highest-scoring forwards are three players you’d expect: Alex Ovechkin (eight goals, 15 points), Evgeny Kuznetsov (14 points, seven goals including the OT tally that ended Pittsburgh’s season), and Nicklas Backstrom (10 assists, 13 points despite missing Game 6 against the Penguins).

Washington’s forward balance should return to its impressive form now that Tom Wilson‘s suspension is over and especially if Backstrom is healthy.

Lightning: Thus far, the Lightning are the scary mix of high-end offense (Nikita Kucherov leads them with 12 points after a 100-point regular season) and dangerous depth (three players with at least a point-per-game). They’re right up there with the Capitals and Golden Knights as teams averaging at least 3.5 goals each contest. They’ve scored 35 goals in 10 games.

They’ve generated 73 high-danger chances versus just 52 allowed.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. During the season, Tampa Bay scored 290 goals while Washington generated 256. The Bolts are a more versatile scoring machine than the Capitals, especially with the Caps dealing with a little more attrition.

If the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs are any indication, this battle is closer than those regular season numbers would make you think.

[Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team]

DEFENSE

Capitals: The Caps have allowed 32 goals and given up 30.2 shots per contest during the playoffs, so they’ve been winning those battles. They’ve given up as many high-danger chances (110) as they’ve generated.

John Carlson rounds out the Capitals’ group of four players who are in the double-digits in points with 11, and he’s unlikely to relent as he tries to beef up an already impressive contract year. Carlson’s also a workhorse for Washington (26:44 TOI average) along with Matt Niskanen (26:52) and Dmitry Orlov (25:31). While Orlov and Niskanen aren’t lighting up the scoreboard like Carlson, they’ve been key pieces, with Orlov and Niskanen carrying a difficult workload against Sidney Crosby. It will be fascinating to see whether Barry Trotz prefers sending out Niskanen and Orlov against the Stamkos or Point lines.

Lightning: Tampa Bay’s allowed just 25 goals in 10 games, 10 fewer than they’ve generated so far during the postseason. Makes sense since they’ve won eight of 10 games, yet it’s another reminder that the Lightning have been a buzzsaw. Again, they’ve limited dangerous chances as well as any team in the postseason.

There is quite a bit of talent on this blueline. Victor Hedman is the obvious headliner as a playoff-proven, Norris-quality performer. The Lightning eventually managed to slow down the Bruins’ terrifying top line, and a lot of that credit goes to Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman. Mikhail Sergachev continues to be a scoring threat on defense even as they ease him into the mix.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. Despite scoring 34 more goals than Washington in 2017-18, the Lightning allowed four fewer (234 to the Caps’ 238). They’re generally able to create a ton of high-danger chances while keeping such dangerous threats moderate-to-low. If you could only pick one defenseman in this series, just about anyone would choose Victor Hedman. Tampa Bay has lock-down options and depth at the position, with McDonagh looking quite good lately.

The Capitals have absorbed some painful losses on offense and defense, but they play in a strong defensive system with Trotz. They’re unlikely to give up many easy chances when Matt Niskanen is on the ice. Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson can create offense, and some depth options like Michal Kempny have really improved their balance. Washington’s defense is pretty solid; Tampa Bay’s is just better.

GOALTENDING

Capitals: After regaining the Capitals top job after Philipp Grubauer‘s early postseason struggles, Braden Holtby is looking a lot like the guy who was putting up some of the best goalie numbers over the past few years, with the added bonus of overcoming the Penguins this time around.

 So far during this postseason run, Holtby generated an 8-3-0 record and .926 save percentage. It’s funny yet very “hockey” that his most rewarding playoff run comes after his first rocky regular season in some time (34-16-4 but with a mediocre .907 save percentage).

One nice thing Washington enjoys that few teams can match is employing a quality backup. While Grubauer struggled in his audition as the top guy, his excellent regular season shouldn’t be disregarded. If something happens to Holtby, the Caps have a nice Plan B.

Lightning: Fatigue and a bumpy finish to the regular season took much of the air out of Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s Vezina campaign, but it makes sense that he managed to be a finalist.

After going 44-17-3 with a .920 save percentage and eight shutouts, Vasilevskiy’s been steady in the playoffs, raising his save percentage to .927. He’s been a strong playoff performer overall when he’s managed to get the chances, as his career mark is a lofty .923 in 22 games.

Tampa Bay’s backups are unproven at best, and a real problem at worst, so it’s probably Vasi-or-bust.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. This is extremely close. Let’s not forget, however, that Holtby was sputtering and losing his top job just a month ago. With their postseason numbers so close, Vasilevskiy’s superior regular season gives him the slight edge.

This category’s another tough call, though, for two reasons: 1) Holtby is really good and is an experienced, proficient playoff goalie and 2) Grubauer gives Washington a much better backup option if something happens.

In other words, this situation could change if Vasilevskiy stumbles or someone stumbles into him and he ends up with an injury.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Capitals: The Capitals’ 13 power-play goals leads the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and their impressive 30.9 percent success rate ranks second (and first among teams that are still in the mix). Washington’s man advantage has been stout for ages now, and Alex Ovechkin continues to be one of the NHL’s singular special teams threats from “his office.”

Washington’s PK killed just under 80 percent of its opponents chances (79.1 percent), slightly lower than the Caps’ regular season success rate of 80.3 (which was middle-of-the-pack). They’ve allowed nine power-play goals during this postseason, with five of them coming during Games 3-5 of the Penguins series.

Overall, special teams seem to be a healthy net-positive for Washington.

Lightning: Tampa Bay has as many power-play goals (10) as playoff games played so far. They’ve generated a PPG on 26.3 percent of their chances; about the only downside of this unit is that it allowed two shorthanded goals. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov’s cross-ice passes simply must be stopped, as their work is right up there with the threat of Ovechkin’s wheelhouse. The Bolts’ PP was deadly during the regular season, too.

Tampa Bay gave up eight power-play goals without generating any shorthanded tallies through 10 postseason contests, killing 74.2 percent of their penalties taken.

Generally speaking, the Lightning’s PK has been a rare area of relative weakness, as they struggled during the regular season, too.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals. These two teams feature power plays that can both take over a series. Washington’s enjoyed better all-around work this postseason, with a PK that seems more reliable.

As with every category, it’s close.

X-FACTORS

Capitals: The Capitals were able to eliminate the Penguins in Game 6 despite Nicklas Backstrom’s absence, but if their criminally underrated center isn’t good to go during this series, there could be problems. The Lightning boast Stamkos and Point, so having two quality centers would really help. At this point, Backstrom’s health is a real question. That could be a make-or-break factor in Washington’s chance to hang in this series.

Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy’s looked like he’s back in form after acknowledging fatigue during the regular season, a lot like his goalie counterpart Braden Holtby. That said, the Lightning haven’t exactly faced adversity during this run, dispatching both opponents in just five games. If Washington starts to get to Vasilevskiy, will his confidence fade?

PREDICTION

Lightning in six games. Tampa Bay has been tearing through its opponents, including an impressive (if banged-up) Bruins team. Washington possesses balance that the Bruins and Devils arguably lacked are built to give the Bolts some headaches. The Lightning have at least a little, often a lot, of everything you’d hope for in a contender; they’re likely to end the Capitals’ post-Penguins honeymoon with cruel precision.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins GM on Maatta over Johnson, future for Malkin and Letang

Getty Images
Leave a comment

With trades already heating up during the trade-friendly time that is the week surrounding the 2019 NHL Draft, the most fun activity is grading the impact of trades … but imagining what else might happen is almost as fun.

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford didn’t really make it seem like he’s eager to trade Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang during an interview with 93.7 The Fan on Monday, but Rutherford also didn’t slam the door totally shut by guaranteeing that Malkin and Letang will be back, either.

Fair or not, some will allow their imaginations to go through the roof after Rutherford merely didn’t close the door and lock it.

Not pursuing those trades, but would listen?

During the interview, Rutherford comically referenced Wayne Gretzky being traded as Rutherford was essentially claiming “never say never,” as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Matt Vensel transcribed.

“There’s been great players traded in this league,” Rutherford said. “If somebody comes along with a package that makes sense for the Penguins, we have to look at it. These are not, the guys that you mentioned, are not guys that I’m pushing to trade.”

Rutherford also said that Malkin and Letang are the “kind of players you win championships with,” and stated that he believes they’re still great players.

For plenty of Penguins fans, this is mostly a relief, especially if Rutherford is really just giving such trades “Dumb & Dumber” odds.

The most important Malkin-related quote may have surfaced a week ago, as Rutherford explained that things seem to have smoothed over between the team and player, via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe (sub required):

“At the time you asked me those questions, it was hard to zero in on too many people because I was thinking about making a lot of changes,” Rutherford said while referencing spicier comments after the Penguins were swept by the Islanders. “But I’ll say this: I believe in Geno Malkin. He came off a year that wasn’t up to his standard last year. We all know that. But he’s a great, great player. I know how good he is, and I know very well what he can do for this team. I wasn’t going to 100 percent commit at that point in time. But in the back of my mind, I knew he was going to be part of this team going forward. And you know what? He was aware of that, too.”

(Anyone else think that “I believe in Geno Malkin” could be a hot-selling shirt in Pittsburgh?)

Rutherford reiterated another stance from a week ago: that he doesn’t expect to trade Phil Kessel. His comments in that regard may calm down those worried about a reckless Letang/Malkin trade, too, as a lot of Rutherford’s language is “I’m not looking to trade X, but I have to at least listen …”

With all of that in mind, it’s maybe most pressing to hear Rutherford speak about more plausible trade targets on his team.

Jack of no trades?

Interestingly, Rutherford didn’t exactly fan the flames about Jack Johnson being traded.

During Monday’s spot with 93.7 The Fan, Rutherford seemed to indicate that, with Olli Maatta traded for cap space, the Penguins may not try to get rid of Johnson’s contract. Surprisingly, Rutherford also claimed that Johnson was not involved in the trade that Phil Kessel reportedly nixed, which would have sent Kessel and Johnson to the Minnesota Wild for Jason Zucker and Victor Rask.

Moving Maatta did get the Penguins out of the most immediate “trouble” that might surface from the salary cap possibly being closer to $82 million than the expected $83 million for 2019-20 … but not at least projecting much interest in trading Johnson should be disappointing for Penguins fans.

It would have been startling enough last summer when the Penguins handed Johnson – a deeply flawed, and not especially young, defenseman – a contract that included a $3.25M cap hit. But it was downright bewildering that the now-32-year-old also received beefy term, as that problem deal runs through 2022-23.

Yes, the Penguins’ defense needs help, but there’s an uncomfortable argument that getting rid of Johnson would count as “addition by subtraction” even before you factor in getting rid of that $3.25M cap hit.

While Maatta’s market value was almost certainly far better than JJ’s value (the Penguins landed a solid package for the defenseman) it’s cringe-worthy to consider an either/or possibility coming down to Maatta vs. Johnson. Especially since, frankly, Maatta isn’t that much more expensive than Johnson, what with Maatta coming in at $4.083M per season.

Penguins fans might want to look away at this Sean Tierney visualization of the team’s defensemen in 2018-19, which uses Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) data:

(You can slice it up in many other ways, and it usually doesn’t come out looking much better.)

Again, it’s possible that the Penguins simply didn’t have any real offers to get rid of Johnson. Maybe Rutherford simply didn’t want to admit it, or maybe there was a part of him that hopes that projecting some positivity might keep the door open to get rid of a big mistake.

***

Ultimately, the Penguins’ window of contention could close rapidly, so it’s important to get this stuff right.

In the case of trading Malkin or Letang, the best move would almost certainly be to stay put. Meanwhile, if the Penguins aren’t exploring avenues to get rid of Johnson-type problems, then the Penguins are leaving opportunities on the table. Finally, with Kessel, the option just might not be there — whether it would be smart to trade Kessel or not.

Elliotte Friedman points to the Penguins being one of the most aggressive teams in the latest edition of “31 Thoughts,” so they’re certainly a team to watch over the next week or so.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Preds hire Scuderi, Bordeleau, Rook as development coaches

Leave a comment

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators have hired Rob Scuderi, Sebastien Bordeleau and Dave Rook as development coaches to help polish their prospects for the NHL.

General manager David Poile announced the hirings Tuesday. Scuderi will develop defensemen, with Bordeleau working with forwards and Rook with goaltenders. They will work with Scott Nichol, the Predators’ director of player development and general manager of their AHL franchise Milwaukee.

The 40-year-old Scuderi retired from the NHL in 2016 after 12 years and 783 career games with the Penguins, the Kings and Blackhawks, winning two Stanley Cups.

Bordeleau played three seasons with Predators from their start as an expansion franchise. He was skills coach for the Montreal Canadiens each of the last two seasons and this past season for the Canadiennes of the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

Rook has been a goaltending consultant for Nashville the past five seasons, helping Predators goalies Juuse Saros and Troy Groseneck. He was goaltending coach for Columbus between 2009 and 2011.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Trade: Flyers add Braun to blue line as Sharks shed salary

7 Comments

One day after the San Jose Sharks handed Erik Karlsson $92 million over the next eight years, they shipped defenseman Justin Braun to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a 2019 second-round pick (No. 41 overall) and a third-round selection in 2020.

“Justin has been an important part of our organization since we drafted him in 2007 and over that time, we have seen him develop not only as a player on the ice but as a man,” said Sharks general manager Doug Wilson in a statement. “He has played a large role in our team’s success since joining the Sharks roster, including appearing in three Conference Finals and competing for the Stanley Cup in 2016. I want to thank Justin and his wife, Jessie, for their commitment to the Sharks organization and wish them all the best in their future.”

In the wake of the Karlsson extension Wilson needed to shed some salary off the Sharks’ cap. This trade does that, freeing up $3.8M from their books for the 2019-20 NHL season. Braun has one year left on his deal and is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020.

Wilson and the Sharks now have a little over $16M in cap space, per Cap Friendly, to try and re-sign some of the team’s restricted free agents like Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc, and figure out what to do with UFAs Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist.

“Under a cap system, choices and decisions need to be made,” Wilson said on Monday. “I don’t think anybody should rush to conclusions on anything. There’s many ways to accomplish different things.”

The Braun acquisition continues an aggressive off-season by Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher. In the span of a week he’s acquired the negotiating rights to pending UFA Kevin Hayes, swapped defensemen with the Washington Capitals by shipping Radko Gudas in exchange for Matt Niskanen, bought out Andrew MacDonald‘s contract, and now added Braun.

This now gives the Flyers a blue line with a left side featuring Ivan Provorov (RFA), Shayne Gostisbehere, Sam Morin, Robert Hagg, and Travis Sanheim (RFA). Who will be on the move out of that group? Judging by how some NHL GMs are talking this week, it could be a very busy summer of player movement.

“I think there’s been more conversation, more communication between the GMs in the last month than maybe ever since I’ve been a GM,” Wilson said. “There’s so much competition, especially for the high-end player. … There’s a lot of things going on.”

MORE:
Sharks set to sweat salary cap after Karlsson extension
Teams looking for defense should seek trades, not free agents
Free agent market for defensemen looks thin without Karlsson

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Lightning re-sign Coburn to $3.4M, 2-year deal

Leave a comment

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning have re-signed defenseman Braydon Coburn to a $3.4 million, two-year deal.

Coburn will count $1.7 million against the salary cap in each of the next two seasons. General manager Julien BriseBois announced the contract Tuesday.

The 34-year-old had four goals and 19 assists in 74 games last season when he averaged 17:08 of ice time. Coburn took a $2 million annual pay cut from his last contract, which should help Tampa Bay remain among the NHL’s top Stanley Cup contenders.

Coburn has 228 points in 924 games with the Atlanta Thrashers, Philadelphia Flyers and Lightning. Tampa Bay acquired him in 2015.

This deal comes less than a day after two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson re-signed with San Jose. The Lightning were considered among the favorites to sign Karlsson if he became a free agent.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports